Mary Ellen MacIntyre’s Little Island

Before I tell you about Mary Ellen MacIntyre’s blog, Innis Bheag (Little Island), you should read a bit of it. Here’s a snippet from a story called “Cow Bay Road Mud and Fire“:

 

Some people shouldn’t retire. If they do, they must then do other things, or they will go mad.

If not mad, then terribly bored and terribly irritable.

The Scot is such a man.

Not only retired but, worst of all, he is forbidden to play the trumpet.

Doctor’s orders – no wind instruments.

He’s sitting in his favourite chair, the tv is on but he’s not watching.

“If I can’t play the trumpet, I might as well be dead,” he says.  He sighs – deeply – in the direction of his wife.

The Acadian stops sweeping the floor and looks at him.

“Oh, for God’s sake – go for a walk or something,” she says.

“And you can still play piano – play a few tunes and you’ll feel better.”

His face is sad.

“Not the same.”

Art by Eliza Murray

Innis Bheag, MacIntyre tells me by phone from her home in Halifax, is “very loosely based on past events.” She has taken (and will continue to take) “lots of artistic license.”

The youngest of 10 children (five boys, five girls), MacIntyre says the blog grew out of a series of “tiny” short stories she wrote and posted on Facebook to mark the death of her oldest brother:

My brother, Johnny, he died last year. And so, sort of in tribute to him, I wrote a bunch of little, tiny stories about what he was like and posted them on Facebook, essentially for family and friends. Because he was a character and he was a lot of fun and did a lot of silly things in his life…I wrote these little stories and people responded to them so well, they enjoyed them because they were missing him too. So I thought, you know, it is kind of nice for a big family like ours to be able to read these things, so that’s essentially how it started. I would write stories about events in our lives…My daughter said, “Let’s make a website, Mom.” And I said, “You do that, sweetie.” [laughs] So she did it, she did all of the mechanics of it. She is just a wizard, that kid.

MacIntyre’s daughter, Eliza Murray, also does the illustrations on the blog. She’s not a formally trained artist, but says MacIntyre:

[S]he’s very much in tune with me. She reads the story, she comes up with a stellar little drawing to go with it. And I love it. They’re economical too, you know, they’re simple.

“Economical” being the word she applies to her own writing style and her stories which she describes as “snapshots” of moments (and people) from the past.

 

You probably recognize the name Mary Ellen MacIntyre from her bylines. She was a well established journalist around these parts, working for the Coastal Courier, the Cape Breton Post and the Chronicle Herald.

Mary Ellen MacIntyre. (Photo by Eliza Murray)

Mary Ellen MacIntyre. (Photo by Eliza Murray)

Her path to journalism, she tells me, was anything but direct. In fact, it included a moment when what she really wanted to be was a sheep farmer (“I don’t think I’d ever seen a sheep up to that point, but that’s what I wanted.”) Instead she went to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish (“I used to say they give you a degree from St. FX when you cross the Causeway”) where she received a bachelor’s in English.

She and a good friend at university decided they’d “either be teachers or journalists” and ended up applying to the University of King’s College in Halifax for journalism:

[W]e got accepted, went to King’s and an…old flame came back into my life, two months after I went to King’s, and of course, I leave university, go off with him to Alberta like a fool and my best friend finished the degree and got a job at a local weekly newspaper in North Sydney.

I went to Calgary and did weird things but when I came back after five years of finding my brain [laughs] I got a job. I’d never worked as a journalist, and [my friend] was working at this point at CHER radio and she was leaving to take a PR job and she said, “Mary Ellen, I’m leaving, why don’t you take my job?”

And that’s how it worked. The boss loved her, and he loved me and he gave me a job and I worked in radio for, I don’t know, five or six years, and then on to the Coastal Courier in Glace Bay…And then on to the Post and then on to the Herald. But my friend never worked in journalism after that. It’s weird.

It was “always journalism” from then on, she said, until the Chronicle Herald  strike that began in January 2016. When it ended, 18 months later,  MacIntyre (who had written a memorable account of life on the picket line for J-Source) was one of those who didn’t return to the newsroom:

[A]fter that, for me, what else is there in the world of journalism? There’s not much in the Maritimes or anywhere, really. For me, it was freelance and you can starve pretty easily on freelance. And I still have a kid who’s going into university and another kid who’s in her last year of nursing and a grandson that lives with me, so I wasn’t going to fool around with it…

[S]omeone mentioned a job that was available in a small options home with mentally ill adults. I’d never done something even remotely along the lines of that, but I applied for the job and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed something so much as this. It’s just…a whole different way of doing good…[T]his work is easy, right? Because all you do is facilitate a lifestyle for these people. And they’re so vulnerable and so wounded and so trashed around by life that if you’re able to help them live a little easier, then that’s a good thing. That’s a beautiful thing.

But:

I still love to write, that’s why the blog is there.

 

The blog, as noted, is (loosely) based on MacIntyre’s life. She describes herself  as “3/4 Acadian, 1/4 crazy old Scotsman,” explaining that her mother was Acadian and her father was “half Acadian” but “in his soul, he was a Scotsman, that’s for sure.”

Art by Eliza Murray

Art by Eliza Murray

She was born in Glace Bay but her father was military and the family moved to Gagetown when she was two. When her father retired from the army, he bought an old schoolhouse in Cap Le Moine, on the West Coast of Cape Breton Island, “where his people and my mother’s people all came from,” says MacIntyre:

I was there between the ages of six and eight…It was just idyllic. For my older sisters, they were pretty much all teenagers by then and for them it was like Purgatory but for me it was just an idyllic place to be — the ocean on our doorstep and the big, black mountains behind us. It was just gorgeous.

You get something of the flavor of the place in a piece called “Aucoin’s Garage, Le Trou and Princess Ring“:

Tante Petronelle gets to her feet to step dance – even at 100 years of age – because there is a lift to the fiddler’s playing.

A strong, straight-backed woman with well-developed forearms earned through a life of hard work, she never lost her “Joie de Vivre.”

After her mother died in childbirth, she and her sister raised 11 brothers. When they were properly raised, she went on to raise her own family.

But she always had time for children.

“C’est ma petite,” the Acadian says, giving me her inevitable pat on the head.

“Elle a le visage de son Père”, says this wonderful lady, leading me toward a plate of cookies.

Not that I was thrilled to resemble my father – a ruddy-cheeked ruffian if ever there was one – but whenever Tante Petronelle spoke – it sounded like she was blessing you.

When the Acadian went visiting, I was permanently attached to her hip. And when we were near the strip of shoreline reaching from Margaree to Cheticamp, there was a lot of visiting.

When she was eight, the family moved to Sydney, where MacIntyre spent much of her life.

 

Of her motivation, MacIntyre says there’s just something in her that “propels” her to write:

I can’t stand it if I’m not writing and I spent so many years writing…court stories or police stories, stories that are sad, or stories that are instructive in regards to dealing with the world. And those are really the important stories and if you write them right, then sometimes you can do things. But the stories I enjoyed writing most — perhaps as a sort of release from writing the other stories — were the fun stories…[T]he stories that make you think, “Yes! Excellent. That’s the way the world should evolve.”

Art by Eliza Murray

Art by Eliza Murray

As an example, she cites the story she was required to do annually during her time in Truro:

You know, I worked in the Truro bureau for 12 years and every year, I had to write a story about how the groundhog was going to be coming out — and then the day of I would have to go and cover this stupid groundhog. And people expected me to write a straight-up story about this groundhog, you know? …In my world, I wouldn’t read a story about how, “at 8 o’clock on Tuesday morning the groundhog will tell us whether we have six more weeks of [winter]”…that’s foolishness.

You’ve got to have some fun. You give the groundhog a voice or a character or, as a writer you say, “Oh yeah, that thing is going to sashay out of his hole and he’s supposed to tell us.” You’ve got to have fun with it. And those stories are the most popular…A reader enjoys something with a tone to it that tells us how silly this world is.

She likes the fun stories, and she’s unapologetic about focusing on the lighter side of life in Cape Breton:

When we did this site, for me it was just something to do to bring people joy which sounds, I know, Pollyanna-ish. But it’s fun to bring people joy. It is a hell of a lot of fun. When someone says, “Oh, that reminded me of growing up with my brothers” or something like that, that’s a really cool thing.

And while she’s heard the criticism that the stories are a bit too “happy happy” and that she should “get into the rough stuff,” MacIntyre resists:

[M]y response to that was, “If I got into that, I’d never get out of it.” Why go there? I’ve been there. And in every family and in every community and every house, there’s sorrow and sadness and pain, and not that I would ever turn my face from that, but I don’t necessarily want to celebrate it.

The beautiful part about my attitude towards Cape Breton is, good God yeah, there’s a lot of sad stuff that goes on — there’s drugs and there’s abuse and there’s a poor economy and there’s people leaving and never coming back and all that misery. But at the same time…there’s also the joy, because we’re human. At our saddest times, we can still enjoy a child’s face or a silly joke. And that’s what being human is and Cape Bretoners are definitely human [laughs]

She also notes that she’s working on a book about the Clayton Miller case which is “enough of the darkness of the human heart.” (We agree to speak again about the book when the time is right).

The only thing MacIntyre seems at all conflicted about is the “donate” button on the website which is there not, she says, because this is about money but because her daughter told her to put it there “because people would like to donate.”

I was opposed to it but she said, “You have to do it” and [laughs] I always listen to my 21-year-old daughter.

But I said we have to make sure that we say on there somewhere, “Don’t feel bad if you can’t donate money.” Because this is free and it’s fun and it will bring you joy — or at least, I hope it does.

And it’s not about money…it’s about, read these stories and escape from reading about Donald Trump for awhile.

 

 

 

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